Energize your mind with new-age bullshit

March 21, 2009 10:29 pm Published by 28 Comments

When I started this blog, I thought I’d be writing primarily about cool science news items, and shedding light on the latest scams, and maybe even writing about politics and religion if I had time. Well, as you can see by the Categories box to the right, I had that completely backwards. The problem is that I really don’t have much to contribute to a scientific news item, besides “this is cool”.

However, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying pseudoscientific claptrap when I see it, and this certainly qualifies for that description:

If you watched that video, you’re probably either thinking “that’s obvious nonsense” or “wow, maybe I should start doing that”. Actually, you’re probably also thinking “that’s the worst reporting I’ve ever seen” and I agree with you there.

A classic joke among us skeptics goes something like this:

Q: “What do you call alternative medicine that actually works?” A: “Medicine.”

A lot of people are inclined to believe in alternative medicine, because they see it as a viable alternative to modern medicine. What many people don’t realize is that there’s really no such thing as “alternative medicine”. There’s medicine, and then there’s unproven and disproven treatments. This “Superbrain Yoga®” seems to be a mixture of both unproven and disproven treatments.

The Yoga Connection

First, it obviously has some sort of connection to yoga. Yoga is an odd combination of exercise, which is obviously good, and meditation, which is a bit more nebulous a concept. Meditation seems to help people relax, to “center” themselves (whatever that means…it may just mean “relax” again), and perhaps even to affect them in some sort of spiritual way (again, very nebulous, and probably just more relaxing). I’ve got nothing against this kind of yoga.

However, yoga has some unfortunate pseudoscientific baggage. Some proponents claim that Yoda, I mean yoga, can manipulate your “life force” or “body energy”, or a host of other magical phrases that also mean nothing. Some go so far as to say that you can heal yourself with yoga. And these Superbrain people certainly do.

How do we know that life force and body energy aren’t real? Well, we don’t. But if they do exist, and they’re capable of healing people, we should be able to notice their effects. But so far, nobody has ever been able to demonstrate their effectiveness beyond what would be expected from the placebo effect. In fact, if you replace phrases like “life force” with “placebo response” whenever you see them, you’ll have a better idea of what’s really going on.

The Acupuncture Connection

Superbrain Yoga is also based on acupuncture. Oy. Acupuncture is another “alternative” treatment that also focuses heavily on the manipulation of life forces. It’s a treatment that has been around for a long time, but remember that just because something has been around for a long time, that doesn’t mean it actually works. Just look at bloodletting. Unfortunately, acupuncture is one of those treatments that just doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Double-blinded studies of the technique show no significant effect beyond placebo. I could go on and on, but instead I’m just going to recommend a really good book on this and other alt-med topics: Trick or Treatment – The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, by Dr. Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh. (I swear I’ll write a review of that book one of these days.)

The Physician

In the video, we see a physician tell a story about how he taught Superbrain Yoga to a kid whose grades improved afterward. Clearly this guy has never heard the phrase “correlation doesn’t equal causation”. According to a single-page large-font article on the Superbrain Yoga web site (in the “Testimonials” section) a kid who was doing poorly in school was taught the Superbrain technique, and in the next semester, his grades went up by 1 full letter grade. Well, holy crap, get this in all our schools. His grades were a little bit better in one semester than they were in the previous. And then, he changed schools, and his grades changed even more! Astonishing! Couldn’t have anything to do with different classes, different teachers, different standards, or anything like that, could it? Remember, this was ONE kid. This information is misleading and basically worthless. I’ll go into how he should be gathering his data later in this article.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categorised in: , ,

This post was written by Bevans


  • Cherry says:

    Hi,This is the first time I have ever seen your blog. I am not here to prove you wrong — so feel free to delete my comment if it offends your logic.This is the first time I have ever read anyone with so little faith. Then again, what is faith? But I'm pretty sure you can find a way to explain faith from some scientific research or journal that has been published out there.Just a suggestion though, try not to get too close to children please. Nothing can ruin imagination and creativity than a cynic like you. Dr. Seuss would hate someone who hate green eggs and ham to be spreading his thoughts around the world. I suggest you just stick to doing web design.This comment must have you grinning like the Cheshire cat. You finally got the attention you want from people who believe in the unknown and the unexplainable. Way to go! Have a happy and enjoyable life (I hope). Btw, don't bother responding, I'm not going back to your site.

  • Bevans says:

    Cherry, it's too bad that you're not going to come back, because I can't tell you how much I despise the self-satisfied attitude your comment exudes. I'm very willing to hear and discuss criticism, but anyone who's not willing to do the same is basically just a worthless person. But I might as well address your claims anyway, since even though you'll never be back, someone else may read your comments and accidentally treat them like actual thought.First, you say you're not here to prove me wrong. Just to criticize, apparently. Why not prove me wrong? Please do. If I'm wrong about anything, let me know. I want to know.It's sad to see you giving faith so much credence as a way of knowing, and scoffing at science as if it can't know anything important. Faith is merely the act of believing something without any evidence, and is a dangerous and worthless method of thought (if it can indeed be called thought). Without demanding evidence for what you believe, you leave yourself open to believe in literally anything. It's not cynical to demand evidence; it's very reasonable.As for what Dr. Seuss would think, I don't know much about him, though from a quick glance at his Wikipedia page, I can safely say that you don't either. I strongly doubt that he would approve of the kind of vapid gullibility that you're espousing. Imagination and healthy skepticism aren't mutually exclusive by any means. I suggest that you do some more research on him before using this cut-and-paste drive-by commenting method again.I do admit though, I enjoy seeing that someone is reading my posts, even if they don't agree. I just wish you would bother to engage in an intelligent conversation. Seeing such wanton inanity in a comment like this is like a shark smelling blood in the water: there's injured prey here, and I can't help but attack. It's too bad you're not willing to defend yourself.

  • Nevyn says:

    You are not wrong! Most of this new age BS is all about making money off the naive.http://relijournal.com/paganism/neo-paganism-where-the-naive-meet-the-charlatans/

  • Nevyn says:

    You are not wrong! Most of this new age BS is all about making money off the naive .http://relijournal.com/paganism/neo-paganism-where-the-naive-meet-the-charlatans/

  • Happytaps says:

    With the science of neuroplasticity and evidence showing that even acupuncture has some merit; Read “The Brain that Changes itself by Dr. Norman Doidge”, in that it helps re-route "gates" the brain uses to allow pain to occur, It seems to me scientists are beginning to prove the connection of yoga and other non-medical procedures to the healing of many symptoms of the body, i.e. mirror box for phantom limbs, gloves and mits for stroke victums, etc. Look up Dr. Edward Taub or Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran. I agree this particular program didn't prove anything but, other well known and well respected scientists have published in peer-reviewed journals evidence supporting similar ideas.

  • Malar says:

    First, let me start off with how kids are taught in the country of my birth, Sri Lanka. When you do something wrong, whether it is getting a question wrong, or just doing plain mischief, the teacher either hits you or makes you do what we call "thoppukaranam" – under the scorching sun! As far as I know, every kid hated it. Then recently, somebody pointed out this "super brain yoga" thing to me. Guess what it was? It was none other than the dreaded "thoppukaranam". I doubt even our teachers knew it improved brain function. They just made us do it as a punishment. Anyhow, it irks me that somebody will take what has been practiced in the Indian Subcontinent for ages, and claim it as their own. What is worse is that they are trying to sell it.I really don't know whether it works. What I do know is that by the time a kid finishes school, they would have done quite a few of those!

  • Anand Nair says:

    Like Cherry, this is the first time that I read your blog. But unlike him/ her, I totally agree with your views!Today, I had got one of those mindless forwards — this one happened to be about "superbrain yoga". The sender had added the remark (yes, in all caps!):-"THIS MAY REMIND YOU OF YOUR SCHOOL DAYS PUNISHMENT FOR NOT DOING YOUR HOMEWORK OR DOING MISCHIEF IN CLASS ROOM. JUST BE AMAZED TO REALIZE HOW GREAT OUR ANCESTORS WERE WHO INCORPORATED THIS YOGA TECHNIC IN SCHOOLS AS A PUNISHMENT BUT ACTUALLY A TOOL TO STIMULATE KID'S BRAIN TO DO THE RIGHT THING. WOW!!"I responded to this by referring to the link of your blog!Anand

  • Francesca says:

    Here are my questions for you: (1) have you ever practiced yoga consistently? (2) Have you practiced meditation consistently? (3) Did you actually do that exercise every day for , say 30 days, so that you could therefore base your findings on that experiential data? I do not know if the super brain yoga works, I'm just asking you these questions, because otherwise how would you really know? As a long time student, practitioner, and instructor of both yoga and meditation, your comments come accross as uninformed and do not reveal your personal research, or experiential dimension. Most people know that just as doing jumping jacks or running raises the energy of the body (accelerates heart movement, etc.), yoga too can either raise or lower the body's energy level or also to lower it by working with the body's autonomic nervous system. For the most part both meditation and yoga principally awaken the parasympathetic nervous system.In a Mass General/Harvard study, research indicates that long-term meditation practice is associated with altered resting electroencephalogram patterns, suggestive of long lasting changes in brain activity; changes in the brain's physical structure. If you are truly interested in the scientific aspect, here are a few links: http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~lazar/Lazar_Medit…. Also go to Mass General Hospital Benson Henry Institute's to access their research on these issues :http://www.massgeneral.org/bhi/research/Finally not too long ago,a couple hundred years ago, our world chose to interpret the world from many dimensions: we can understand and explain the world from a historical perspective, a philosophical dimension, a religious dimension, and of course scientific. However, to subject any issue to a purely scientific examination (which you didn't really do either), is to limit the potential of the richness of the conversation. Finaly, I teach yoga to dozens of people every day who come to class with myriad issues, only from a purely physical perspective, yoga's poses combine stretching, strengthening of muscles in the entire body, and people with joint issues, low back pain, frozen shoulder, arthritis, etc. experience greater range of motion in the joints which occurs when synovial fluid becomes activated in the joints with movement, it strengthens and tones muscles, and increases flexibility . Yoga students can touch their toes more than most people who live lives as couch potatoes.

  • Kv170746 says:

    The best way to cure such unbelievers is a kick in the butt/arse i.e a sure fire yoga.The fire will produce instant result.

  • Owen says:

    Hi Dubiosity,

    Interesting article. I think that certainly there needs to be evidence and I currently am looking at superbrain yoga in order to decide whether or not to include it in my brain training.

    I totally agree with the author of this article that testimonials are completely subjective and are not sufficient evidence in themselves.

    I think it is worth mentioning that as the cliche goes “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. That is to say that just because there have not been any clinical trials on the matter does not mean the exercise does not work. There do exist many many things that people might know or greatly suspect works to do what they think but there is no financial incentive to spend money on highly expensive clinical trials (millions of dollars). Additionally, there is currently a large lack of funding in many countries.

    My current status writing this: I am undecided whether it actually works (I have not even tried it yet), however I am inclining towards believing it might be more likely to be true than other things. The reason is the CBS news report includes some potential evidence on some improvements in grades and symptoms for children with autism. However, this is not a clinical trial and you cannot say that the cause was superbrain yoga. But mostly it is because there was a doctor who felt this worked and that there was a yale neurobiologist who is much more qualified than I to decide if this would work and there was some brain scans showing the changes in brain activity in the hemisphere.

    However, the existence of a book makes it (in a statistical sense at least) less likely to be true but again I suspect it might be true.

  • Hossen says:

    I just heard about this today. Yes, it may be total BS. But what harm is there in trying it out? The video explains how to do it so you don’t need to buy the book. At the very least you would do some squats, get an ear massage, and focus on your breathing. Just try it out for 30 days and see what you think. It’s exercise. Even if it’s just 100% placebo, some people seem to be seeing benefit from it.

    It’s more interesting to me that you dedicated your time to develop an entire webpage bashing it.

  • Bevans says:

    It’s always fun to see people completely ignore what I’ve written, and then judge me for “bashing”.

    Just in case it needs to be said again, I will gladly change my view if any good evidence is produced to show that it works.

    But please, go back and read the post.

  • Venkat says:

    I do this every day for 15 mins. Didn’t pay anyone a dime for this information. I do feel fitter, and calmer. If this is just placebo, I am fine with it.
    In the interests of full disclosure, I am an atheist, do yoga fairly regularly and also meditate.

  • Dani Dub says:

    Hi, I stumbled across your blog today while looking for refreshing viewpoints, so keep up the good work! I just started a blog along the same lines as yours, humorously enough, I want to keep myself anonymous from some of my peers, friends, family, and potential employers, which, when you think of it is really sad that there are so many unreasonable people among us. Doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in humanity. So I’m glad to see you speaking your mind too.

    In relation to yoga in particular; I will say that yoga absolutely has concrete medical benefits. But these benefits cannot be summarized by New-Age hogwash. In flat scientific terms: when an organism is exposed to a stimulus, it sets off a complex series of chemical reactions in the brain. Torturing someone causes stress hormones to be release. Yoga, or some similar meditation provides stimulus for the brain to release “feel good chemicals.” And by doing yoga repeatedly, the brain can be chemically conditioned. Exactly what you say, there is no alternative medicine, just medicine. So I wouldn’t say that yoga in and of itself is a bunch of crap, but that the way it is commercialized with crazy mumbo jumbo is indeed.

    BTW, have you noticed that the so-called “spiritually superior” choose to throw a bunch of cheap stabs at you instead of engaging in a logical, mature debate? Fascinating. – Dani

  • JRR Tolkien says:

    Dear Cherry,

    Seuss was an Athiest and don’t even get me started on his views on government. Being skeptical is a very good thing. If anything it opens your mind to all possibilities instead of limiting your thought process down to hearing something then that one thing you heard becoming truth and everything else is beoming wrong. Illuminating faith for the bullshit that it is, is at the essence of creativity.

    your friendly neighborhood anarcist
    John Tolkien

  • skeptic guy says:

    I do think it’s all BS and perhaps it may have a placebo effect, but in the other hand a placebo effect may be better than nothing sometimes. I have the impression that placebo effect is often equated with “nothing” or some meaningless “feels better” impression, but it turns out that placebo can be (sometimes) quite a potent thing. And it’s not absent, but present, in the real effects of many (most? All?) treatments as well, according with some research (don’t have a ref here, I’ve heard about that in some non-woo podcast, I guess it was on something by Ben Goldacre on BBC4). There was something about an experiment where a subject/the subject was/were given something like codeine, both knowing and not knowing that he/they was/were receiving it. When the subject was conscient of the administration of the drug, the effect was something like 50% higher or something. So, even “non-placebo” stuff actually owe quite a bit of their real effect to placebo.

    It’s also thought/hypothesized that the way the physician deals with the patient may influence quite a bit, with those doctors with a “meh” attitude (as perceived by the patient) triggering less of this widespread placebo effect. Those who are perceived to care more about the patient trigger more placebo.

    More surprisingly, sometimes placebo can work even if you know that it’s placebo. At least with children. They were given remedies, told the remedies were fake, and yet it wasn’t innocuous, but had some beneficial effect. Some scientists think that this sort of thing may accounts for a big deal of the apparent/semi-illusory efficacy of “alternative” treatments. It may be that the treatment procedure itself is innocuous, but there’s the aspect of being under a procedure that triggers some placebo that has its real effects, still under the limitations of placebo, which is limited but still not exactly “nothing”.

  • skeptic guy says:

    By “conscient” I mean simply “aware”, and not that the opposite was the he was unconscious/passed out, but only unaware. English is not my first language, so this sort of thing happens.

  • One second here says:

    My only comment is that this is not really new age. Parents in India have been using this technique for at least 100 years (my grandfather’s time) and I bet more. Parents used this to calm and focus misbehaving kids. What you westerners call new age is often just the repackaging of Hindu ideas which are hard to date. (Could go back to Aryan invasion of India or even to Dravidian times). Secondly, while you may label this as faith based, the idea of yoga was really science. The early practitioners were very focused on trial and error and understanding what worked. They may have used “magical phrases” but it would be no different than calling the gas in my car a “potion.” It’s just terminology. I am not saying that the science was infallible, just that the thinking behind yoga was not premised on faith or magical nonsense.
    You should do some research on Hinduism and not just blindly call it all new age. Indians in the US, one of the most educated groups in the country now, use this kind of “magic” every day!

  • Asa says:

    So in worst case you think the fact that some patients get cured by placebo effect is also BS. So what? They’d rather die or get well in your favorite main stream proven way?

  • Alex says:

    Well, I can’t speak for 99.999% of the snake oil out there, but I expect some yoga techniques might yield something positive. But I’d definitely treat any wild claims with total disdain and not spend a cent on them. As scientists continue to study the brain they’re realising that we’re quite capable of things we considered impossible – there’s an example of a boy who’s blind who learned how to navigate around using a form of echolocation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1QaCeosUmw (yes youtube is not a peer reviewed study, but I first heard of this guy on my local ABC radio national radio program here in Canberra Australia.

    This guy has shown himself capable of extraordinary cold endurance and has trained others to emulate him to a degree. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wim_Hof and http://www.icemanwimhof.com/en-home (there’s a link to a peer reviewed study done on his physiology during cold exposure)

    These are a couple of situations worth thinking about, but don’t undermine your general point about the worthlessness of almost all of the new age mumbo jumbo out there..

  • Drew Baye says:

    If you ignore the silly new-age mysticism there is some physical benefit to yoga. These benefits are often greatly exaggerated for marketing purposes, however, and yoga provides no general physical fitness benefits that can not be obtained more effectively through basic calisthenics or progressive resistance exercise.

    I suspect a lot of people who take up yoga as opposed to more conventional exercise routines do so in large part because they want to be perceived as trendy.

  • Liam says:

    Bevan, will you reply to Francesca’s post? She seems to have provided a reasonable argument. What are your thoughts?

  • Eric says:

    Hi. I’d like to share my opinions and experience with meditation and spirituality. First off, I think it’s important to explain who I am. I wasn’t raised religious. My parents very much let me decide things on my own. Naturally I gravitated towards science over religion because it’s humble and makes more sense.

    I’m curious though. I wanted to persue spirituality in the hopes of proving or disproving it for myself. I started meditating regularily. Nothing crazy. Just as simple as breathing deeply and allowing my mind and body to completely relax. It’s a break from all troubles and social pressures.

    So here’s what happened after 6 months of this. I became a more relaxed person. More easy going. When problems arrose in my life it was easier for me to accept them and move on. I also noticed an increase in discipline(mainly with school work).

    I think most people will agree that these personality changes make sense. There were some unexpected changes though. I I saw a vast increase in creativity (music and writing are my creative outlets). I devoloped an attraction to nature like i’ve never experience before. I completely stopped playing computer games and watching mindless tv and go outside instead. Walk around the area, enjoy the fresh air. It wasn’t an effort. It just happened.

    That is certaintly not everything but I think you get the point. During the time I started meditating I saw incredible positive personality changes in myself. Of course I can’t say that meditation is responsible. I still have not been convinced that there is anything to it. I’m forever a skeptic, but that’s ok. You don’t need to believe in a god or spirit to enjoy meditation (and it is enjoyable).

    I challenge anyone who reads this to meditate for 15 minutes a day (or however long you want to). If you’re worried about your roommate seeing you, you don’t need to sit criss cross on the floor with a crystal in one hand, a candle in the other, chanting mantras. Lay down on the couch and clear your thoughts. Maybe it’ll just be relaxing time for you. Nothing wrong with that.

    I wish you all peace, love, and happiness.

  • Arturo says:

    You are totally wrong. I am a skeptic and an atheist, but this Super brain Yoga is a different label for Neurophysiology, totally scientific, totally proven. You get so crazy about not believing that you become an idiot such as the believers you criticize. Science requires objectiveness.

  • Leo says:

    There’s a great book on this called “Bad Science”, by Ben Goldacre.
    I totallt recommend it!

  • Andy Hoare says:

    As someone who finds a spot of yoga amenable to my health and happiness I would point out one thing. Almost every practitioner of yoga I’ve encountered takes all the ‘salute the chakra in Uranus’ stuff with a massive dose of salt. This (and indeed much of religious practise in general) is to me nothing more than a voluntary suspension of disbelief, an exercise in imagination that gets you into the right headspace. The problem with decrying this sort of thing entirely is that it assumes the majority of people can’t understand metaphor and are just stupid. Having said that, the specific organisation you’re exposing here sounds like a right bunch of muppets, so please continue doing so, just without assuming the rest of us are as daft as them 😉

  • Mike says:

    Okay, this is sort of old, but it touched a chord, so I’m gonna respond. Like you, I don’t have any special fondness for new age hogwash, but I can tell you that at least some aspects of alternative medicine are based on valid reasoning that for one reason or another has yet to be acknowledged by modern science.

    Your point that alternative medicine that works would simply be called “medicine” is well taken. Eventually, that will happen. However, what about new ideas that have yet to be thoroughly tested, ideas that are difficult to examine in a laboratory (one example would be the problem of “sham acupuncture” for double-blind studies – this was eventually solved, but it’s not the only example of this type of issue), concepts that are so general they are difficult to generalize in a study, concepts that are not backed by an organization with lots of money to fund scientific studies, and concepts that have not yet drawn the attention of the medical establishment? There you have a huge amount of claims, a lot of which are probably crap, but at least some small portion of the wild claims out there must be true.

    My ultimate point is that the only way to know whether these things work or not is to try them. If something doesn’t work, I’m glad to toss it into the new age (or old age) crap category, but not until I really know. We should also keep in mind that the placebo effect is still an effect. That wisdom seems to be lost on modern science.

    Finally, about yoga. While some of the claims made by ancient and modern yoga practitioners seem totally outlandish and absurd, yoga has been studied extensively and proven to reduce stress and increase strength and flexibility, along with other benefits. So what we are looking at is a system whose benefits are acknowledged by Western science, even though Western science does not accept the theory behind the system. Yoga was not developed in accordance with Western science, which did not exist at the time, yet it’s still successful at keeping the body and mind healthy, at least to some limited extent, as proven by Western science. I don’t accept any wild claim about “subtle energy” and personally I think that most of that sort of talk is simply uninformed babble, but if it’s 100% hogwash, how did ancient Indians develop this amazing system? Certainly something to think about.

    Maybe you don’t agree with me that yoga is good for you… okay. Also, about superbrain yoga, I don’t even know if this is really “yoga.” But if you want to know if it works, try it. Personal experience is also a completely valid way to test conclusions, not to mention a faster and cheaper one than a double-blind medical study.

  • sab says:

    finaly I found a bullshit blog…
    I am few things to say..

    try this technique for one month. Then write one article.
    I was also like you. I never belived in these things till I experienced its power.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *